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Sunday, February 24, 2013

Modern Pilgrimage Part Five: Zen Center of Los Angeles

In this five-part series guest blogger and filmmaker JL Aronson writes about his Fall 2012 pilgrimage to Buddhist centers in California and beyond. Follow his journey as he meditates his way through the West. Find out more about JL here. See more photos from JL's pilgrimage here. Happy reading! - Madeline


Los Angeles Zen Center
Founded in 1967 by Hakuyu Taizan Maezumi Roshi, Zen Center is located on a quiet stretch of LA's Koreatown neighborhood, occupying several houses and buildings on back-to-back blocks.
Photo by JL Aronson
LA is a funny place to those casually acquainted with it. On the surface, it seems like an oil spill of a city, populated by slick, sunglassed people, each trying to be convincing at one role or another. It sounds deeply in need of Dharma, of something to help break the spell of delusion. Of course, the local view is far more complicated. Los Angeles is exceedingly diverse and many of its inhabitants are drawn from all around the world. There are those looking for a sense of connection to the communities they’ve lost, or searching for answers to questions no one thought to ask before electricity, and those looking to peel back their own layers so as to face the wages of life less clumsily. They say in India there are as many Gods as there are people. In LA, they do it a little differently. There, the Gods are all schizophrenic self-help deities and there’s one for every personality. But that doesn’t mean you can’t find a little truth if you leave your proverbial cameras rolling.
Zen Center of Los Angeles, Zendo Building (left), Sangha House (right)
Photo by JL Aronson

It was a different town in 1956, but not too different. That year, a 25-year-old, fresh-faced monk named Hakuyu Taizan Maezumi arrived from Japan with little English or any notion of what he was getting into. Maezumi had come from a prominent Buddhist family and his father, a distinguished temple priest, had found the young Hakuyu to be an eager student of the tradition. He was trained, not only in his father’s Soto lineage but by another renowned teacher in the Rinzai lineage.  He’d been sent to America to assist at a Zenshuji Soto Mission in LA’s Little Tokyo, a downtown neighborhood where Japanese had been settling since the beginning of the century. The mission served as a cultural center for immigrants and American-born Japanese but it wasn’t big on meditation or any of the other practices that were usually left to monks.  American Angelenos didn’t know or care much for such distinctions. What they did know in the late fifties and early sixties was that beatniks were into Buddhism—particularly Zen—and beatniks were cool. After a few of them came around to inquire within at the Soto Mission, Maezumi happily agreed to start offering them classes in zazen. 
This development didn’t sit well with the establishment in Little Tokyo. I imagine that memories of forced relocation and internment were still fresh at that time and few wanted whatever trouble might come from dungareed and unshaven hipsters coming around to cultivate their awareness. Awareness of what? What would they tell their politically-connected parents and older siblings who worked at banks? Thank you very much and no thank you.
As a more recent immigrant, Maezumi didn’t see things this way. He saw an opportunity to share what he’d inherited, both spiritually and culturally. In 1967, with the encouragement and support of his growing number of Western students, the Zen Center of Los Angeles was born.
Zen Center of Los Angeles
Photo by JL Aronson

When I visited the Zen Center in early November, it was possible to declare that the heyday was not recent. Maezumi Roshi attracted hundreds of students at the height of his popularity as a teacher. Of the practitioners he trained, a number of them received Dharma transmission and went on to found highly influential second-generation temples throughout the United States, many of which flourish to this day. ZCLA continues to attract a steady group of people seeking an antidote to agitation or a blueprint for curing the blues. But it’s a smaller group than was there before, and it struck me that a majority of those in the community had remained from earlier times. Where were the young? Had Southern California tuned out and turned off its mystic mind?
Hungry Ghost/ Day of the Dead Altar at Zen Center of Los Angeles
Photo by JL Aronson

The complex of houses and apartment buildings that comprise ZCLA are a testament to the spirit that was very much alive in the seventies. At that time, the larger culture was retreating from the previous decade’s excesses and seeking more practical comforts. In order to meet a growing demand for the Dharma, the Zen Center came to occupy a stretch of two side streets in LA’s Koreatown. The backs of several houses were joined together by a series of courtyards and small gardens where much of the community life takes place. Two small apartment buildings were converted to house up to 150 residents, some of them as families. Though most of the residents have always been free to pursue their own careers by day, the Center had become a humming, wide-eyed village with an urban skyline. And like other city centers, a rural retreat facility and monastic training center was developed. Yokoji Zen Mountain Center, located in the San Jacinto range of Southern California came to serve a similar role as Tassajara, Green Gulch, Great Vow, City of 10,000 Buddhas or any number of other monasteries with a metropolitan presence. 
Zen Center of Los Angeles
Photo by JL Aronson

  In the early eighties, both San Francisco Zen Center and ZCLA were shaken by unrelated scandals involving the misuse of money, sex, and alcohol. To many, Buddhism had seemed like an exotic alternative to the dominant culture of hypocrisy and corruption, including other religious institutions. Though some left, disillusioned, the groups as a whole survived with safeguards against such things happening again. Informed by wisdom from the East, it was Western democratic principles of transparency and oversight that allowed these and other centers to move forward and evolve, assuring that generations to come could benefit from teachings of that most incorruptible of men, the one known as Shakyamuni Buddha. 
Maezumi Roshi died in 1995 while visiting family back home in Japan. His long time student, Wendy Egyoku Nakao, took over as head teacher and abbot in 1999. While I was visiting, I got to experience some of the soft, joyful, inviting touch that seems to characterize the Zen Center under Roshi Wendy’s stewardship. The Mexican Day of the Dead had just taken place and many parts of Los Angeles were still celebrating with multicultural pride. At this time of year, when Halloween is also celebrated, many Buddhists hold Hungry Ghost ceremonies to honor the unfulfilled dead and potential we each have for greed or generosity. For the first time, ZCLA decided to mix all three. Participants were invited to attend dressed as either a dead ancestor, or just a dead person. In other regions, this might have been met with shrugs, however, this being Hollywood, people are always ready go in character. For those without a trunk full of costumes, props and face paint were offered.
Hungry Ghost/ Day of the Dead Festivities at Zen Center of Los Angeles
Photo by JL Aronson

Each morning begins at Buddhist practice centers with a liturgy ceremony and this particular Sunday was no different, except that participants seemed to have walked off the set of a zombie movie. Following the service, the 30 or so undead on hand proceeded to the central courtyard. Altars had been set up, festooned with old photos of the departed, friends and family members of those of us still walking, still awake. Simple instruments and noisemakers were handed out. And then, one at a time, each of us stepped forward into the center of the circle we’d formed, and invoked the name of an ancestor, at which point the rest of us shook our shakers, tambourines and hand drums for a few seconds of un-silence. It was absurdist, reverent, irreverent, and fun.
Roshi Wendy Egyoku Nakao and a visitor on Day of the Dead at Zen Center of Los Angeles
Photo by JL Aronson

Roshi Wendy herself wore a pink boa and a face-painted skeletal mask. After the ceremony, she greeted me and my friends warmly, offering regards for the sangha family back at my own practice center in New York. Expecting this to be a family event, I’d brought with me a couple local friends who’d never been to any kind of Buddhist center before, along with their two young children; as it turned out, the only children in attendance. 

URL addresses don’t get more descriptive than this: www.zencenter.org
My pilgrimage ended here. A few days later, I drove out to the airport, returned my rental car and boarded a red eye flight back east, prostrating all the way. This wasn’t a comprehensive survey of West Coast Buddhism. Many more highly respected practice centers would have made it onto a longer itinerary. Some of them would have been Vipassana-style, some in the Tibetan tradition, and one of them certainly would have been Vietnamese. That said, a few places that I visited but didn’t get to mention in this chronicle were the Berkeley Zen Center, the Santa Cruz Zen Center, the Zen Community of Arcata, CA and—in Portland, Oregon—Dharma Rain Zen Center. I could imagine myself spending lots more time in any one of the temples I was fortunate enough to get acquainted with. But for now, I’m back to staying present in the places I call home. 
Do some of your own explorations starting right here, right now. Each of the links provided bring you to a treasury of info about how to get there and what’s happening throughout the year. Or research a practice center, monastery or temple closer to you. Most people hem and haw, not sure which tradition is right for them. Many of the websites associated with these centers feature free recordings of talks by the teachers, along with links to books and articles. But there’s nothing wrong with just diving in. And in fact, that’s the only true method there is.

Click here to explore the Modern Pilgrimage series.